Classic Hollywood: Shirley MacLaine’s Still Going Strong

Shirley MacLaine
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson in ‘Downton Abbey’ (Photo Credit: Nick Briggs © Carnival Films)

Shirley MacLaine is not from another planet, but sometimes her philosophy seems to put her onto another galaxy. All of her thoughts and theories can be read in her numerous books. They’re quite interesting, if you want to know the truth. Some of her bestselling books are Don’t Fall Off the Mountain, Out on a Limb, Dancing in the Light, and My Lucky Stars.

Shirley MacLaine is known to most of us as a movie star, and a great one at that. She has lasted more than six decades in a business that is known for chewing up actresses at an alarming rate. No wallflower, MacLaine has survived the notorious movie moguls of yore and outlived all of them. Was she tougher than Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures or Louis B. Mayer, the man behind the great MGM? Maybe, but she wasn’t cowed by them, either.

Perhaps it all stems from her upbringing. Born April 24, 1934 in Richmond, Virginia, she was allegedly named after moppet movie star Shirley Temple, who was Queen of the 20th Century Fox lot in the 1930s. MacLaine’s dad, Ira, was a professor of psychology and her mother, Kathlyn, was a drama teacher. Young Shirley excelled at school in — of all things — baseball! She played on a boys team and earned the nickname of “Powerhouse.” Her athleticism probably helped in her rigorous dancing routines.

Mom enrolled her daughter in a ballet class at age three to help strengthen her ankles. MacLaine took to the ballet classes and loved going to sessions. This led to appearing in several shows, which inspired her interest in performing on the stage. Although she loved ballet, she decided early on to move into other types of dancing to expand her repertoire in the performing arts.

Before she graduated high school, she decided to try her luck in New York. She got a small part in the chorus of a production of Oklahoma!. That whetted her appetite for performing, so she went back and finished high school. While in her senior year, she participated as a cheerleader and appeared in school stage productions.

Graduation couldn’t come soon enough as she was raring to return to New York and the Big Time. She was cast in the dancing chorus of the musical Me and Juliet in the 1953-1954 season.

When famed dancer Carol Haney injured her ankle during a performance of the hit musical The Pajama Game, Shirley MacLaine went on for her for a few months in 1954. As Hollywood legend would have it, fate struck in favor of MacLaine as prestigious film producer Hal Wallis saw a show and immediately offered her a screen test and contract at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Did she say yes? You betcha!

She was whisked out to the studio and given the royal treatment. Her first film was to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest film talents in all of movie-land. The picture was the whimsical comedy The Trouble With Harry (1955), co-starring the handsome John Forsythe and curmudgeonly Edmund Gwenn. With the movie a hit, MacLaine won the Golden Globe Award as New Star of the Year. She was on her way like a rocket.

Shirley MacLaine
Shirley MacLaine (PRNewsFoto/American Film Institute)

Paramount wanted to cash in on her new popularity and immediately cast her with the biggest comedy duo on screen, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, in the screen adaptation of the Broadway hit, Artists and Models (1955). Elizabeth Taylor’s then-hubby, producer Mike Todd, cast MacLaine in his super extravaganza-filled-with-stars, the amusing Around the World in 80 Days. It was one of the biggest blockbusters of its time.

With barely a minute to herself, she was rapidly cast in the MGM drama Some Came Running (1958) with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nancy Gates, and Martha Hyer (Mrs. Hal Wallis). MacLaine received her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and Martha Hyer was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Vincente Minnelli directed.

The actress was kept busy in a string of well-received films such as The Sheepman, Hot Spell with Broadway legend Shirley Booth (1958), The Matchmaker, Ask Any Girl, Career, Ocean’s 11, and the lavish musical Can-Can, again with Sinatra and French stars Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan, and Sinatra’s current girlfriend, dancer Juliet Prowse. This was all shot on Stage 8 and Stage 16 on the Twentieth Century Fox lot. The film gained notoriety when Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev visited the set in 1960 and expressed shock that the Can-Can girls were scantily clad! What did he expect them to wear? Fur hats, coats made of Mastadon pelts, and rubber galoshes? We think not.

When MacLaine was signed for director Billy Wilder’s The Apartment with co-stars Jack Lemmon (Baxter) and Fred MacMurray (Sheldrake), little did she know she would be nominated for the Oscar as Best Actress that year.

On top of the Hollywood heap, she made a filmed version of the Lillian Hellman hit play about two lesbians, The Children’s Hour (1961), with Audrey Hepburn, another star of Hollywood royalty. More dramas and comedies followed for the next few years until she made another musical.

Reuniting with director Billy Wilder and co-star Jack Lemmon, MacLaine played a Parisian floozie in the musical comedy Irma la Douce (1963). For her role as the good-hearted hooker, MacLaine was once again nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress. The part had originally been slated for Marilyn Monroe who passed away in 1962. MacLaine also replaced Monroe in another film, What a Way to Go! (1964), that had been on Marilyn’s schedule.

Making at least one hit film per year, she returned to the musical form in 1969 with Sweet Charity. Adapted from the Broadway musical that starred Gwen Verdon, MacLaine took over the leading lady part and Verdon was nowhere to be found in the film. Famed New York choreographer Bob Fosse directed and put the girls through their paces. Broadway legend Chita Rivera managed to get into a few scenes with fellow dancer Paula Kelly and MacLaine. Other famous New York dancers adding to the festivities are Ben Vereen, Lee Roy Reames, and Toni Basil. Nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy was our Shirley.

Alternating between Westerns, comedies, and dramas over the next few years brought MacLaine to a benchmark film in her career. That film was The Turning Point (1977) for which she was again nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. The story is about two women who start out a ballet career together. Shirley MacLaine’s character of Deedee decides to give up a career and move to Oklahoma to raise a family with hubby Wayne (Tom Skerritt). Anne Bancroft remained in New York and became a ballet star. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov plays Yuri, and he’s joined by several famed ballet stars including Alexandra Danilova, Fernando Bujones, Peter Martins, and Suzanne Farrell.

Skipping forward to 1983, MacLaine is still on a career high with the great tearjerker of all time, Terms of Endearment (1983). For this mother-daughter emotional roller coaster, MacLaine won the Academy Award for Best Actress and Jack Nicholson won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Debra Winger played the daughter and both women did splendidly.

Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge

In the past 30 years, she has appeared in more than 33 films and did some television as well. Some of her big movies were Steel Magnolias (1989) with Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Julia Roberts; and Darryl Hannah; Postcards From the Edge (1990) with Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, and Gene Hackman as written by Carrie Fisher; These Old Broads (2001), a Hollywood spoof also written by Carrie Fisher and co-starring legendary actresses Debbie Reynolds, Joan Collins, and Elizabeth Taylor; and the French production about dress designer Coco Chanel (2008) for which MacLaine once again brought home an Emmy nomination as Lead Actress.

The Oscar and Emmy-winning star has never really been out of work during her six-decade career. She delved into television when she created a sensation on the popular Downton Abbey series by playing Elizabeth McGovern’s American mother during the 2013-2014 season.

Having signed contracts to appear in at least four new films over the next two years, it seems Miss MacLaine could well be working into her nineties.

Yes, she did have a romantic personal life. She first married back in 1954 to alleged businessman/producer Steve Parker. He produced the movie My Geisha. This led him to move to Japan. The couple managed to produce a daughter named Sachi (now 62, b. September 1, 1956). Sachi went to live in Japan with her father while MacLaine stayed in Hollywood. Sachi wrote a scathing book about her mother in which she complained MacLaine was never around during her childhood. MacLaine and Parker finally divorced in 1984.

MacLaine had plenty of romances, including a torrid affair with the Australian Liberal Leader Andrew Peacock. She has always been quite open about having had affairs with men. Her brother is the handsome and squinty-eyed actor Warren Beatty, who is married to the beautiful and talented actress Annette Bening. MacLaine goes on, and on, and on…